We have all been there. We buy a batch of crappie minnows, shiners, rosy reds, or other fish and they are all floating motionless after about three or four hours on the water. You likely have a livewell full of crappie, walleye, or other predator species but your bucket of fish catchers has lost all life. What happened? Although it is slightly difficult to identify at first glance, there may have been some things you have forgotten to do which spelled the end for your bait.
The most common issue we see that causes floaters is stress. If you can eliminate that, you can usually eliminate death altogether. Most individuals are fragile and need to be adequately taken care of to prevent losing any in the future. There are some things that you can do that will specifically help you keep fishing minnows alive when you are using live options. Take time to review and study what your specific species needs for good care. Follow these steps regardless of the species. They will work on all baitfish universally across the board regardless.
Helpful Disclaimer – What To Expect When Keeping Bait
This is a guide on protecting and preserving the life of your baitfish once you have caught it or purchased it from a supplier. This guide is created under the assumption that you have a batch of healthy and frisky individuals already. It is in no way meant to guarantee the livelihood of any sick or dying individuals if they were not already healthy to begin with. Understand that nothing can completely stop death in any environment, regardless of how careful you are. If some die on you after following these tips, understand that it is likely not you, but a part of life, equivalent to being born. Baitfish are fragile and sometimes, there is nothing you can do to keep them alive.
1. Obtaining Your Minnows At The Right Time Frame
The very first thing you want to do is to make sure that you purchase or catch your minnows at the right time. Ideally, that should be the same day or one day prior to your fishing trip. If survival is actually an issue to you, you would do very well to actually purchase or catch your minnows the same hour you plan to use them. You want to give them the best chance of survival. That is so much easier to do properly in the short term in contrast to very long term periods of time. Generally speaking, they are at their peak effectiveness when they are first caught for obvious reasons. This is especially true for predators like bass and pike.
The fresher you can get it, the more lively they are. They will work much better. The longer you have to keep them, the more likely you are of running into some kind of mishap, usually one caused by you. This generally applies to all baitfish species too. Not just your common fathead minnow or shiner. This rule applies to gizzard shad, threadfin shad, and other fragile baitfish but also to more hardy and tolerant options like suckers, common carp, and bluegill. Freshness is the key to success. This is always the case. Make sure they are as fresh as possible. Purchase or catch them at the right time. It is well worth taking the extra care to do this right. It really pays off in the long run. You will catch a lot more fish and not spend your time constantly baiting lines.
2. Store Them In The Right Container – Insulated Only
If you are considering purchasing some local baitfish from a tackle store or sporting goods supplier but lack a proper container to store them in, don’t bother. Without a good container, it is almost the same as leaving the bait on dry land. Just don’t worry about it if this happens to be the case. If you lack a proper container, they usually give you a plastic baggy instead. While they usually do pump oxygen inside the bag with a plastic tube before they give it to you, keeping any fish inside of a plastic bag is a bad idea, even for the short term. It’s not a good idea.
First of all, plastic bags are sealed. That means that the inhabitants are only considered alive for as long as it can hold oxygen, which is usually less than an hour tops. Also, plastic bags have the disadvantage of being flimsy instead of rigid. That will make the bait more stressed out over the long run. Also, once the oxygen supply is exhausted, you can pretty much say goodbye to any signs of life thereafter. Anything remotely alive will be pretty much nonexistent at that point.
If however, you have a proper bait container on hand that is properly insulated and provides a steady oxygen supply, such as the Engel live bait cooler, you can keep them alive for a very long time. Another alternative is to have a very roomy and well-oxygenated livewell which is essentially the same thing built into your boat. Oxygen and insulation is the name of the game. Make sure you have both. It is impossible to be successful with one and not the other.
3. Use Only Pristine and Clear Water Inside Containers
Aquatic and marine life have one means of existence and that is, of course, the water. The water is quite literally what they live and breathe on a daily basis. That means that the water quality is as important to fish safety as a clean and balanced mix of oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen is to us. That means it is the single most important factor in keeping anything from the water in optimal health. As it relates to keeping and using shiners or fatheads to catch other fish, this means that this is the one thing you should not overlook. Never, ever, ever.
Don’t ever assume that the water is fine either. Possibly every problem you can run into is usually the result of suffering or diminishing water quality. If this suffers, so does everything else. Don’t ever let it get to the point to where you are questioning it either. Know for certain that the water is perfect every second of the day. The best water to store baitfish in would be from the same water they just came out of. If you purchase them instead, make sure to fill the container up with the same water from the bait tank. Using the water they naturally swim in makes such a big difference. With this, you are never left in the dark guessing about anything. It also prevents spreading diseases, parasites, and invasive species.
4. Keep Them At The Right Temperature Always
Another very important thing to consider (and this is a big one), is the temperature at which the water stays. Improper temperature can kill fish easily. Since they are cold-blooded creatures, their body temperature changes and adapts to the temperature of the water surrounding it. In slowly changing environments which is what they usually experience in the wild, the cold blood gives the fish a great chance of surviving colder seasons such as winter and fall.
In environments where the temperature can change drastically in a matter of minutes or even seconds like in the case of fishing, this survival ability has the opposite effect. Instead of helping the fish, it gets shocked and dies instead. This is something you need to be careful of. You really do want to keep their body temperatures down. This lowers their metabolisms and causes them to use less energy as well as absorb less oxygen in the process.
They stay alive better in cooler water because they get lethargic, sluggish, and lazy. Colder water makes them go into survival mode. This means they focus less on eating or swimming and more on conserving energy for later, which is what you want. A great way to take advantage of this is to use an ice pack inside of the water you put them in. This will be immensely helpful in the Summer sun when heat can be a problem. Cold water holds oxygen better and the fish enjoy it more. Again, the container used is very important for providing sun protection as well as keeping the water cold.
5. Add Additives To The Water For Survival (Optional)
Another thing that you can do is add commercial additives to the water. While this step is completely optional and not needed, for some anglers, it makes a big difference in lowering the mortality rate. There are many different products that you can add to the water. A few examples include chemicals that remove chlorine from tap water, conditioner, antifungal, and antibacterial agents, electrolyte boosts, and stress-reducing mixes that increase the minnows slime coat.
There are so much more possibilities than just the ones listed too. Products like these can really help a person as well as the bait if they can afford it and use the right ones. The issue with this is the price and the initial investment that it takes in addition to the bait itself. One could almost argue that needing to purchase products like these would defeat the purpose of keeping baitfish alive, to begin with. One could use the money they spent to purchase these and get a fresh batch of lively minnows instead. Even so, they may help a handful of people.
6. Perform Lots And Lots Of Frequent Water Changes
A great habit to get into is to perform frequent water changes. This practice is good because it replaces the used water with fresh. This does a few things. First of all, it will level out anything currently in the old stuff to the right amount. It fixes things like excess ammonia buildup, depleted ph levels, copper and zinc levels, improper temperatures, stress indicators, and it even removes fish wastes. You do not want to be constantly changing the water though, as this can cause stress which is contagious. You want to change it once every three to four hours.
This will replenish lost nutrients and will keep the fish much happier for much longer. When you do it, be careful to avoid shocking them by adding water that is too warm or cold. Also, make sure that it isn’t a complete water change. Do not replace all of it at once. Replace around half of it or less and no more. This minimizes stress if you do it properly. I cannot count how many people I have seen that just completely remove all of the water at once and then wonder why every single one became a floater. That is because they are doing it way to fast.
7. Ventilating The Stored Up Gasses – Ammonia Kills
A certain practice is often overlooked by many. Be honest with yourself. When was the last time you opened your bait tank or livewell just to air it out a bit? No, I don’t mean to grab one to throw on your rig either. I simply mean to expose it to the outside air. In other words, giving it time to vent. Usually, the most common way of opening the lid involves having it open for a second or two while you painstakingly grab a minnow out of the corner of the box before closing it again.
In reality, it is never a bad idea to leave the lid off for five to ten minutes every two to three hours just to release the buildup of ammonia, a colorless gas that is generated when fish absorb oxygen from water. Even in moderate amounts, ammonia can be hazardous and even lethal to your bait if you are not careful. Always make sure to vent it once in a while just to ensure that ammonia will not make any floaters. It literally takes about two seconds to open it up too, which is worth it when all is considered.
8. Avoid Overcrowding – Ensure Bait Has Ample Space
You always want to remember your maximum capacity. Your population density on the inside is hugely important. You want to always be familiar with just how much minnows can fit inside before it starts becoming a problem. Depending on how cool you keep the water, you can store anywhere from one dozen all the way up to ten dozen per gallon of water. This is a general rule of thumb and is not an exact science.
This is because there are so many factors which go into determining this number. Factors such as the size of individuals, their energy, their species, and the size of your container can all be taken into account. It really is more or less trial and error until you can find out what is best for your specific situation.
9. Don’t Feed Them Any Food At All – They Are Baitfish
Although it may sound counter-intuitive to your progress, one thing you should never do is actually give them food to eat. That is very funny David. I do hope you are joking. For real though, I am being serious here. Just don’t do it. It actually hurts their chances of surviving instead of helping it. When they consume food of any kind, they use a lot of energy for digestion. Ever tried running on a full stomach? What is the result most of the time? Usually, it is a big decrease in speed as well as energy.
This is the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve. Although humans produce notable exceptions on many occasions, fish are not exactly adept at weightlifting or building stamina coupled with endurance. When they eat, they go into the digestive mode, sit there, and wait it out until it’s time to eat again. Not only will this give you pour action in the water but it will also produce unnecessary fish waste which can contaminate your water and kill your other fish.
Besides, they can survive for a very long time without food anyway. Upwards of three to four months to be exact. If you need to keep them past the point where they actually do get hungry, this is indicative that they are not fresh enough for what you want to use them for anyway. Get rid of them or throw them back and get a new, healthy, lively, batch of bait to do your fishing.
10. Review Proper Handling And Hooking Skills
Last but not least, you need to understand that proper handling, as well as hooking, is essential to maintaining a very lively action in the water. Certain environmental disruptions and cues can negatively affect their health and cause them to die of stress. To reduce this, always keep track of the tank and make sure it doesn’t fall, make sure it does not get shaken up in any way, and most importantly, handle it as little as possible.
You never want to abruptly disturb the water inside as it will cause them to swim erratically and use more energy. If possible, keep it stationary and still. When you do want to retrieve a minnow, make sure to thoroughly wet your hands and grab one very quickly. Put it on the rig and get it back in the water as soon as possible. There are certain ways to hook minnows and these will keep them alive much longer if you do it right. Make sure to learn these quickly and put them into practice.
Keeping Minnows Alive Is Simple
If you know how to do it, keeping fishing minnows alive is not that difficult. If you follow the proper steps, you can always keep some lively fish on hand to land that catch of a lifetime. To sum it all up, the main steps that you should take consist of purchasing healthy minnows at the right time, storing them in a great container that contains the water they naturally live in, and completely removing stress from the fish by providing a living space that is healthy and fish-friendly.
Everyone loves to fish for different species and these methods normally apply to the more fragile varieties of bait but it also applies to those that are not as fragile. Just remember to treat them right, take care of them, and you can always catch more by putting lively specimens on your hook. You will catch much more doing it. Do you have any tips that can help make this post better for others? Share them with us by leaving a reply in a comment below. We really want to hear what you have to say about it!